The Puritans dream was to create a model society for the rest of Christendom. Their goal was to make a society in every way connected to god. Every aspect of their lives, from political status and employment to even recreation and dress, was taken into account in order to live a more pious life.
But to really understand what the aspirations of the puritans were, we must first understand their beliefs. “Their goal was absolute purity; to live with out sin in a sinful world was to them the supreme challenge in life. They were derisively called Puritans because they sought to purify the Church of England of the popish and antichristian stuff with which they believed the simplicity of the primitive Christian church had been encrusted.” The Puritans believed that man’s only purpose in life was “to glorify God on earth and, if he were especially fortunate, to continue the good work in Heaven.”
For the puritans, to glorify god meant keeping him in mind at all times, working to the best of their ability at whatever job god had fated them to do, and following a strict moral code based on the bible. “Every act and thought was either a glorification of god or its opposite.” Thus, leading a pious life in the form of working hard, praying, and churchgoing, was considered paying homage to God. Through all of these things, the most important was to be mindful of God at all times. Pride, complacency, and gratification of the senses could not be permitted if they captured the place in the mind reserved for the Almighty.
This does not mean, however, (as many people have believed) that the Puritans did not allow themselves to be comfortable and happy. First of all, the Puritans took happiness in the knowledge that they were living a pure life the way God had intended it to be. Second they believed in working hard, and if one acquired wealth by working hard, saving, and staying sober, than that was evidence of God favoring that person. “Eating well, drinking well, sexual indulgence within the bounds of matrimony, and enjoying the comforts of life were not proscribed by the Puritans. In actuality, the Puritans were waging war upon certain human propensities that they regarded as evils: covetousness, materialism, the love of ostentation, and concern with the externals of religion rather than with the things of the spirit.”
When a puritan felt that he had failed to meet the requirements set for him by God, he “flagellated himself remorselessly with introspective cross-examinations that usually took the form of thoughts of eternal reprobation and torment.” The puritan was in constant internal conflict, whether it was restraining his human desires, or if he failed in that, than scolding himself for faltering in his efforts. The Puritans believed that they were God’s select few that could carry out his original orders the way he had intended.
Now that we have made clear the beliefs that the Puritans held so dear, we can better observe their aspirations when they arrived in Massachusetts. They came to the New World to erect a “City Upon a Hill” that would serve as a model for the rest of the Christian world. “Thus, in the eyes of the Puritan leaders, the settlement of New England appeared to be the most significant act in human history since Christ bade farewell to his disciples.” The city of God was destined to be built in New England and the Puritans intended to be the founders. An entire community living as God had directed men to live, this was the vision that spurred thousands of people to make the dangerous Atlantic journey to New England.
The Puritans goal in New England was to create the perfect pure society where nobody sinned and God ruled completely. They attempted this by making laws about and regulating every aspect of life in the colony. To achieve this, the church needed to rule the colony. And if the church ruled the colony, only the real Puritans could be part of the church. They believed only a minority of the population pure enough to be a part of the church. Consequently, the Puritans restricted church membership and voting to the select few who were “visible Saints who had received unequivocal assurances of salvation by means of a sanctifying spiritual rebirth.” This could be bypassed by the Puritans’ Covenant of Grace, in which each person who performed his duty could claim salvation from God. In reality very few people were ever able to give enough evidence that they had completed their part of the bargain. As a result, two-thirds of the population failed to qualify as church members.
The Puritans enacted many laws to keep the non-Puritans living religious lives. They created an official whose only job was to check up on ten families daily to see if anything out of the ordinary was happening and to make sure everyone who was able went to church. Their idea was that everybody, even if they weren’t part of the church, should be very religious. Therefore they created their laws with underlying principles based on the Old Testament. For example, they believed that if you are not working with the church, you are working against it. This comes up in many trials where anyone not entirely agreeing with the church was either whipped, banished, or both.
They dreamed of a society where everybody followed the laws and lived a peaceful, god-fearing existence. To make this dream realizable, the Puritans created severe penalties for breaking the laws. These ranged from whipping and being thrown in the stocks for minor offenses, to banishment and death by hanging for serious ones. To be a good Puritan one had to work hard all the time and never be idle. Idleness was also a grave infraction that carried with it the penalty of torturous physical punishment. The Puritans arranged a comprehensive list of “good and wholesome laws” that prohibited “carnal delights,” such as attending plays, dancing around a maypole, bowling on the green, playing shuffleboard, quoits, dice, and cards. Even the “wearing by men of long hair” was enough to bring them under suspicion of being subversive to the church. There seemed no end to the ways a Puritan could sin: drinking in taverns, sexual indulgence, swearing, falling asleep in church, Sabbath-breaking, overdressing, etc; and in New England sinning was the same as breaking the law. The next question is to what extent were the aspirations of the Puritans fulfilled during the seventeenth century. The answer is that they succeeded, and then failed. At first, the Puritans came very close to realizing the dream of a perfect god fearing society. But as time progressed, more and more non-Puritans moved to New England and it became less and less of a model for the rest of Christendom. Finally in sixteen ninety-one the Massachusetts Bay colony and the Plymouth colony were combined into Massachusetts and put under royal control.
At the start of the colony, everything was coming together. Even though non-Puritans out numbered the true Puritans three to two, for the most part everybody followed the laws and the government and church had no real internal threats. The Puritans kept growing more and more in number and started to expand west and south into present day Connecticut where they formed two new colonies. The first was the Hartford Colony, consisting of the towns of Hartford, Wethersfield, and Windsor in the Connecticut River valley. The second was the New Haven Colony on the southern coast of Connecticut. The colonists moved from Massachusetts Bay to New Haven because they believed that Massachusetts was becoming lax. They created a government in New Haven even stricter than the one in Boston.
During this period of expansion, there existed disagreements among some members of the Massachusetts Colony. The first major subversive force was Roger Williams. He was a controversial young minister who preached separatism. He believed that the Massachusetts church should sever all allegiance to the Church of England. But more disturbing to the clergy, he called for complete separation of church and state. The colonial government, alarmed at this challenge to its spiritual authority, banished him in sixteen thirty-five. The following year he bought some land from the Narragansett Indians and with a few followers started the town of Providence. Other religious dissidents followed, and in sixteen forty-four Williams obtained a charter from Parliament allowing him to create the government of Rhode Island.
The other significant challenge to Massachusetts was Anne Hutchinson. She believed that living a pious life was not enough to become a true Puritan and that to become a true Puritan one must undergo a conversion experience. Hutchinson berated the leaders of the colony for having ministers that she believed were not part of the elect and she was a serious threat to the established clergy. Her followers grew numerous she became influential enough to prevent Winthrop’s reelection as governor in sixteen thirty-six. The next year he returned to office and had her tried for heresy. Even though she displayed remarkable knowledge of theology, she still defied clergy, and was eventually banished for sedition. Williams and Hutchinson were only a few of the growing number of colonists who were discontented with the Puritan government.
The Puritans dreamed of creating the perfect god fearing society as a model for the entire Christian world. They did everything in their power to keep this dream alive. They created strict laws, and enforced them vigorously all in the name of God. But it was destined to fail because of the growing political liberty in England and the numerous advancements during the age of enlightenment, which eventually came into direct conflict with established Puritan beliefs.